Richard Trank’s fascinating new documentary, Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres, a Netflix movie currently streaming around the world, tells the story of the late Israeli leader through interviews with Peres and those who knew him.
The portrait that emerges is of a man who made dreams that seemed impossible come true for the State of Israel, across different eras and with different partners, and whose vision and ideas have had an incalculable impact on present-day Israel and are continuing to influence the country’s future.
“What we’re seeing now with the Abraham Accords is the foundation that was laid by Shimon Peres, because he was talking about this kind of relationship with Israel’s neighbors decades ago and everyone thought he was crazy. His optimism throughout his life never wavered.”Richard Trank
Of the many world leaders who are quoted in the movie, former US president Bill Clinton comes closest to summing up the former Israeli prime minister, president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, saying, “His critics often claimed he was a naive, overly optimistic dreamer. They were only wrong about the naive part. He knew exactly what he was doing in being overly optimistic. He knew exactly what he was doing with his dreams.”
Academy Award-winning writer/director Trank, who is the executive producer of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Moriah Films, spoke in an interview about the genesis of this project, for which Peres sat for over 50 hours of interviews in 2016, just a few months before his death, and why this is the perfect time for such a movie to be released.
“It was kind of bashert [Yiddish for “meant to be”] that it turned out the way it did last because it launched last Wednesday, July 13 at 10:01 in Israel just as [US President Joe] Biden was arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport. So really, the timing couldn’t have been better and one of the things that’s important to us about this film is really showing, not just to Israel but to the world, what it means to be a leader and he was a tremendous leader .”
Peres will be remembered equally for strengthening Israel’s military defense and for his efforts to create a lasting peace with the Palestinians and all of Israel’s neighbors, said Trank, who was joined in this interview by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, its Museum of Tolerance and Moriah, its film division, who said he was particularly happy about the fact that the film was reaching a wide audience on Netflix.
“Here we are in 192 countries, in 33 languages on Netflix. My hope was that they would license it, but they took it on a Netflix original. [Netflix CEO] Ted Sarandos is a friend of the Wiesenthal Center,” Hier said. “The film has been seen around the world by millions of people; not just by Jews, also by Arabs and Muslims.”
Last living link to Ben-Gurion
THEY DECIDED to make the movie about Peres in 2016, after Trank interviewed the Israeli leader for an upcoming documentary about David Ben-Gurion, since Peres was “the last living link to Ben-Gurion.”
The documentary details Peres’ early childhood in Belarus, where many Israelis may be surprised to learn that the young Peres, nurtured by his grandfather, a learned and revered rabbi, was quite religious and once smashed a radio because his father was listening to it on the Sabbath. It also looks into his teenage years during the British Mandate, when Peres’ ambition was to build up Israel through agriculture and setting up a kibbutz.
“One of the tender moments in the film is when Peres and [his wife] Sonia married, and the kibbutzniks set up a honeymoon suite for them in a tent,” Trank said.
But Peres was drawn into politics through his wider vision for the country. One of the most interesting sections of the movie is about how Peres was able to obtain the necessary uranium and other materials for Israel’s nuclear defense program, even getting an outgoing French political leader to backdate a document authorizing the deal.
“Without Peres in Paris, who knows if Israel would be able to defend itself today?” Hier said.
Another great moment in Peres’ career, which the movie examines, is the rescue of hostages at the Entebbe International Airport in 1976, showing how Peres, then defense minister, was instrumental in pulling the operation off. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother, Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit that carried out the raid was killed, and Netanyahu’s father Benzion asked Peres to eulogize their fallen son.
His eulogy so touched the family that it created a lifelong bond with Benjamin Netanyahu. The film explains that in spite of their political rivalry, Peres advised Netanyahu on many important matters when the younger politician was prime minister.
AROUND THE world, Peres is best known for setting up the negotiation of the Oslo Accords directly with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, which led to all those involved winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As Trank succinctly put it, “[Peres] was Mr. Defense and then he became Mr. Peace.”
“It wasn’t always easy for him. He never gave up. He faced tremendous struggles and challenges that many people would have said to ‘hell with it, I’ve done enough in my life,’ but [for Peres] it was all about Israel."Richard Trank
The movie explores the moment of triumph for Peres when the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn and the tragedy that followed as Hamas carried out numerous terrorist attacks and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Rabin’s assassination was especially devastating, said Trank, since after decades of rivalry, the two forceful Labor party politicians had finally learned what they could accomplish when they worked together. “Peres devoted himself to soldiering on, to helping the country get through this loss.”
The movie also delves into Peres’ late-career move to the Kadima party and his tenure as the country’s president, through which he advised foreign leaders, as well as his establishment of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, which fosters his vision for the future and passes on his legacy to the younger generation.
Both Trank and Hier spoke about the special place Peres held in the hearts and minds of those on both sides of the political spectrum. At the memorial service held 30 days after Peres’s death, Trank recalled, “There was [right-wing philanthropist and businessman] Sheldon Adelson, sitting back-to-back with [left-wing author] Amos Oz. That was pretty incredible.”
Reflecting on Peres’s legacy, Trank said, “It wasn’t always easy for him. He never gave up. He faced tremendous struggles and challenges that many people would have said to ‘hell with it, I’ve done enough in my life,’ but [for Peres] it was all about Israel.
“What we’re seeing now with the Abraham Accords is the foundation that was laid by Shimon Peres, because he was talking about this kind of relationship with Israel’s neighbors decades ago and everyone thought he was crazy. His optimism throughout his life never wavered.”